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The cover story in the September/October 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review is an excellent analysis of how the sports media covers problems in college sports. The story, titled “The Scandal Beat,” by Daniel Libit, talks about how the relatively small group of sports journalists that actually report and comment on the problems in college sports focus on corruption within the current NCAA system — primarily rule-breaking by coaches, administrators, athletes and boosters — and not a “system that is fundamentally broken.”

The Scandal Beat, Libit writes, “with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them.” Later, he adds that sports reporters, even very good ones, tend to focus on “straightforward coverage of the NCAA and its rules — and the inevitable violations of those rules — rather than coverage that challenges the validity of the rules themselves, and the system that upholds them.”

When it comes to problems in college sports, Scandal Beat sports journalists are very good at answering the “what” questions and not so good at the “why” questions. Addressing the rule-breaking scandals is only dealing with symptoms, not root causes. And as Libit alludes to, as long as the sports media watchdogs keep focusing on the rule-breakers and ignoring the model of college athletics itself, nothing will change but the particulars of the next scandal.

The vast majority of scandals and rule-breaking incidents in college sports are tied to one fact: college sports are a highly commercialized enterprise. Given that fact, the big story is the economic injustice of adults getting rich off college sports and not sharing any of the revenue with the players who who are responsible for creating it.

This is a story about a college sports system that ignores the market value of its top athletes; a system that allows coaches, athletic directors, bowl game executives, and television networks to make a lot of money on the backs of athletes getting tuition, room and board. It’s about universities abusing the non-profit tax exempt status we’ve given them as a society as they conduct hugely commercial operations in football and men’s basketball (and a few women’s basketball programs) under the guise of education and amateurism.

In March, HBO’s “Real Sports” did a story that found that “members of the University of Texas’ 2009 football team were worth $630,000 while those of last year’s national champion Duke University men’s basketball team were worth $1.2 million each.” This comes at a time when the median grant-in-aid package for college athletes is $27,923. When looking at those numbers, it becomes clear that economic injustice is the real story in college sports, not athletes selling their own memorabilia.

Why do we tolerate a college sports system like this?

Why are elite athletics tied into our educational system in the first place? It’s not that way around the world, why is it that way in the United States?

As a society, we need our Scandal Beat reporters to transition their public-service journalism skills to answering “why” questions like these instead of sticking to the “what” questions.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans

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